Indian bandit queen-inspired dance show a hit in Canberra

June 8th, 2008 - 2:14 pm ICT by IANS  

By Neena Bhandari
Canberra, June 8 (IANS) Blending dance forms, the weeklong Utsav 2008 festival here choreographed by Indian dancer Padma Menon highlights issues of social justice for women. And it includes a sell-out performance inspired by the original Indian bandit queen. “Utsav 2008 is all about dance, culture and women - about how women have overcome ordeals in their lives to emerge triumphant rather than as victims,” Menon told IANS.

Her theatrical dance performance, “Fireborn”, inspired by the life and times of bandit queen Phoolan Devi, was a sell-out at the Street Theatre in the Australian capital over the weekend.

“I am fascinated by Phoolan Devi’s story, particularly the four days before her death in July 2001, which was captured on film by National Museum of Australia curator Stephen Foster, who had interviewed her for an exhibition `Outlawed!’ I am using the footage as part of the work,” says Menon, who returned to Canberra from India earlier this year after nearly a decade.

“The work simply puts forth her story as she said it. It’s a very theatrical story…about her as a child facing violence and abuse and how she claims power by becoming a bandit. I don’t necessarily idolise her,” says Kochi-born Menon, who initially trained in bharatanatyam in Hyderabad and then moved to Chennai to train with kuchipuddi maestro Vempati Chinnasatyam.

For Canberrans, the festival has come as a new concept. “Utsav 2008 is a series of events linking dance to different aspects, from psychology to spiritual and political. The response has been very positive,” says Menon, who in February this year launched the Mudra Centre for Dance in Canberra.

The rich and varied `Utsav 2008′ programme of forums, workshops and performances included engaging interpretations of “Rudra”, “Draupadi” and “Moksha” by acclaimed dancers Sulini Nair (mohiniyattam) and Dheepu Baburaj (bharatanatyam) from India and Gunvor Karlsen from The Netherlands.

“The vision of my work is to have international exchanges. For me art is not just for art’s sake, it is about how art speaks in society, how dance can be more powerful in life and in society,” says Menon, who had first moved to Canberra in 1988 to do her honours in English literature at the Australian National University.

“I continued dancing and worked as a freelance choreographer. I established the Kailash Dance Company in 1992 (later renamed the Padma Menon Dance Theatre).

“We created a range of new works drawing on traditional Indian dance styles but also looking to contemporary European movement styles and theatrical traditions for inspiration,” says Menon, who went on to do her masters in choreography from the Rotterdam Dance Academy and worked as a dancer and teacher for several years in The Netherlands.

Utsav 2008 was held across many venues — Street Theatres, Australian National University, National Gallery of Art, Canberra Glassworks and other places - in the capital from June 2 to 8.

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